Politics & Policy

Hello, I Think You Might Be Distant Family

Our writer visits the Virginia home of some colonial ancestors.

‘This is where George Washington slept,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. He leaned forward, resting on his cane. “Although when I say ‘slept,’ I really mean ‘paced.’”

I asked what he meant.

“Washington was a big pacer, and a large man. He was always given the room above his host. On these wooden floors, if he was awake, then so were the people below.”

#ad#I was at Sabine Hall in Virginia, and by all accounts I shouldn’t have been. As harebrained schemes go, this was a winner. I had rented a car in Manhattan the day before, and set off for Tappahannock with nothing but a crumpled copy of my family tree and the name of a house. I had little choice but to set out blind, as my research had hit a dead end. I could find no telephone number, no website, no e-mail address. Nothing. This wasn’t surprising. Despite being a National Historic Landmark, and the former home of Colonel Landon Carter — of Revolutionary diary fame — Sabine Hall is still privately owned.

This much was made abundantly clear when, after a brief, mistaken — nay, hazardous — foray into the corn fields that surround the property, I was greeted at the gates by an emphatic sign: “Private Property. No trespassing!” I stopped obediently on the threshold. At the end of the long and curving driveway there was a small lodge house, and I knocked weakly on its door, looking around the sides for signs of life. There was clearly nobody there, and hadn’t been for a while. The door was covered from top to bottom in cobwebs and I could see through the windows that there was no furniture inside, just bare floors and piles of dark grey dust.

As I saw it, I had two choices: I could turn straight around and drive the six hours back to New York, or I could take a risk. Before I had left, I had joked with a friend that the last place in the union that I would wish to trespass was rural Virginia. Walking through the gate and up the drive, that joke seemed a lot less funny.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t dogs. Four of them bounded up to me and, behind them, a voice: “Quiet!” And then, when the voice’s owner saw me: “Can I help you?” He didn’t have a gun, which was a relief.

“Hello,” I replied. “I think you might be distant family.”

“In which case, you’d better come in.”

It had all started back in England. On a rainy day, my mother called me and asked if I knew who Landon Carter was. I did. “Oh good,” she said. “You’re related to him through your father’s side.”

Landon Carter inherited significant wealth from his father, Robert “King” Carter, a Virginia-born merchant planter, and he used some of it to build a mansion named Sabine Hall, a few miles from Warsaw, Virginia. Today, he is best known for his diary, which chronicled the Revolutionary War. The family is a veritable Who’s Who of early American history, counting Robert E. Lee and both Harrison presidents among their number. Alongside the many Carter family portraits in the house, there is a small cartoon of William Henry Harrison. “Yes, well. He spoke a little too much,” my new friend says drily, of the first Harrison president’s premature death.

He glances at the portraits. “Remind me which Carter you’re linked to,” he asks. “There are so many.”

I tell him and he smiles a wry smile. “Ah, well. I’m sorry to tell you that Landon Carter Jr. wasn’t the best of men. He was a gambler. His father wrote about him in a less than flattering way. And he annoyed his siblings. They had to live with him, as the entail was in all of the children’s names. He also enjoyed his drink.”

We wander around and I am shown various parts of the house, which is perfectly preserved but has a small hole in the roof that was left by Hurricane Irene. After about 20 minutes, a voice is thrown up the stairs. It is his wife, a well-dressed woman possessed of that effortless poise that aristocrats learn as children. I ask her what it is like to live in a house such as Sabine Hall.

“We don’t really live here, as such,” is the answer. “We have a closed museum with a comfortable apartment on the side.” I have come across this before with England’s aristocracy, this notion of being custodian rather than owner.

This is understandable, even literally true. Much of the furniture has strings attached to it. There is a program run by the state of Virginia, which finds safe homes for antique furniture in the great houses of the Commonwealth. A portion of its stock has found its way into Sabine Hall. If the house is sold, the furniture has to be returned. “The only problem with that,” says the lady of the house, “is that there is no real definition of ‘goes back.’ It’s not as if there is a warehouse.” Indeed it is not.

They are knowledgeable and welcoming. So much so that I ask whether people often turn up uninvited. “Not really,” he says. But this seems to be an understatement, as when I sign the visitors’ book, there are names from all over the country — from all over the world, actually. Unlike me, however, they have been invited, and I am aware that I am lucky with my family connection. The house is closed to the public for a reason.

I don’t wish to trespass on their time too much, but am keen to see the outside.

“Wander for as long as you like,” I’m told. “But please, if you take any pictures, we’d rather you kept them to yourself.”

Neither of them follow me out to the gardens, but I’m pursued by the four dogs, who career enthusiastically around my ankles. The gardens are heavily landscaped and almost British in their style. Behind them is open field, then trees, and finally a river that serves as a boundary.

I let myself out. The dogs obediently stop at the car door and, when I start the engine, rush back to the house, startled. They are unused to loud noises. Taking a final look at the grand columns that front the house, I head back to Manhattan through a world that is simultaneously both American and English — I am in Essex County, and there are signs for Jamestown, Middlesex, Richmond, and Prince George. But the lines in the middle of the road are that distinctly American yellow color, and I stop at a diner with a fading sign to get a coffee and to take stock of the fact that I, a boy from a small town in England, had just touched George Washington’s bed.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.

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